On August 9th, things were still looking good for the Oakland A’s.
The club had just won a 9-4 contest against the Minnesota Twins behind a 3-for-4 day from then-MVP candidate Josh Donaldson. Prized acquisition Jeff Samardzija toed the slab that day and scattered seven hits over six innings, allowing just two runs and giving manager Bob Melvin and the A’s a quality start.
After that game, Oakland held a season-best record of 72-44, 28 games over .500 with the best record in baseball. The A’s also sat four games up of the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West.
The next day, the A’s would fall to the Twins 6-1. It seemed like a regular midseason loss, nothing big and certainly not a harbinger of things to come. If they only knew then how badly the wheels would fall off. Entering Saturday’s action, the A’s are 87-73. Their record since August 9 is a woeful 15-29.
Starting the week of August 11, the A’s began a shocking tailspin. They lost three of four at Kansas City before being swept in a three-game series in Atlanta, and then splitting a series at home with the New York Mets.
The Angels, in that same time frame, won two against Philadelphia, took two of three in Texas, and swept Boston in a four-game series at Fenway Park.
It was a stretch that saw Oakland win just two of 10 games, while the Angels lost just one of 10.
From four games up in the division to two games back in less than two weeks, the A’s then found themselves with a chance to get right back into the thick of things, with seven games against the Angels in the following 10 days.
How did they respond? By letting Mike Trout and Co. take five of seven as the Angels took a commanding five game lead in the AL West on the last day of August.
Oakland hasn’t improved in September either, going 8-14 through Wednesday. They have gone from the best record in baseball to fighting for a wild card spot.
So what happened?
First, Oakland made two significant trades.
The first came on July 5th, when they acquired Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs, while giving up minor leaguers Billy McKinney and Addison Russel, in addition to Dan Straily and a player to be named later.
The second came at the end of July, when Oakland sent Yoenis Cespedes to Boston in exchange for Jonny Gomes and Jon Lester.
On the surface, neither Samardzija nor Lester are to blame for this collapse. Lester has gone 6-3 in 10 starts since switching coasts, with a better ERA (2.20) and WHIP (1.06) than he had in Boston before the trade. In fact, his stats in Oakland are better than any year he had in Boston.
Samardzija has been better than the 2-7 record he brought over from the North Side of Chicago, going 5-5 in 15 starts to date with Oakland. His ERA (2.92) and WHIP (0.92) are also better than they have ever been before.
To sum up, the two aces that the A’s brought on board have been better with Oakland than they were with their previous teams. What more can you ask for?
So, it has to be the offense then, right?
You can bring up all the advanced metrics that you want (as in, Bill James’ Pythagorean win-loss record that says that Oakland should be 96-62, rather than 86-72), but it comes down to scoring runs, and the A’s have gotten worse at that as the days have gotten shorter.
In 160 games this season, Oakland’s offense has scored 721 runs, for an average of 4.51 runs per game.
In the 24 games the A’s have played in September, they’ve averaged a full run per game less than that, scoring 3.45 per game.
Oakland has lost 15 games to date in September, and they haven’t been slugfests. They’ve lost exactly one game in September in which they’ve scored more than four runs, and on average, the A’s have plated just 2.0 runs per game in their losses.
As good as their pitching can be, you’re not going to win if you can’t score.
Their playoff hopes seem to be in good shape, as they are two games up on Seattle with two left to play, but can the team have any prolonged success in October with its offense in decline? That remains to be seen.